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Wednesday, 24 April, 2002, 12:42 GMT 13:42 UK
BNP could win North West seats
BBC local elections 2002 graphic
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By Jim Hancock
BBC North West political editor
The possibility of the extreme right getting its first councillor for nearly 10 years in England overshadows the local elections in the North West.

The towns of Oldham and Burnley, hit by racial violence last year, face the prospect of a concerted effort by the British National Party (BNP) to get councillors elected.

National anti-racist organisations are already active in those communities to combat the party's influence.

It is nine years since the far right briefly had a town hall representative in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

Voter interest

However, the chances of the BNP getting local representation for the first time since then cannot be ruled out.

The party obtained 11,500 votes at the General Election in Oldham, 4,000 in Burnley and 2,000 in Pendle.

The BNP had the ability to mobilise a section of voters who rarely took an interest in local or national elections - young white men.

Some may take the view the odd BNP councillor will have little power. That may be true, but the political situation in Burnley and Oldham is unstable.

Labour has a tiny majority on Burnley council and the Liberal Democrat administration is even more precariously poised in Oldham.

Labour defensive

The Conservatives have been revived in certain parts of the region at local government level since the 1997 general election.

Success in taking Lancashire districts like Rossendale and Hyndburn was followed last summer by victory in the Cheshire County Council elections.

A drop in morale amongst Labour supporters could see advances for the Tories and Lib Dems in Pendle, Preston, Blackburn, Chorley and West Lancashire.

Elsewhere, Labour is facing tough contests. In Greater Manchester, Rochdale is held with a small majority and the Tories are particularly optimistic about removing Labour's majority in Bolton.

Text messaging

On Merseyside, the Liberal Democrats have a 46-seat majority on Liverpool Council and this year have managed to remove its status as the city with the highest council tax in England.

Mobile phone text message voting will be tried here.

The most interesting fight will be for control of Wirral Council, which includes the Birkenhead Parliamentary sear of Frank Field.

Here Labour's majority has been removed in the last two years and a hung council looks a real prospect.

Lib Dems stalled?

With cities like Manchester, Salford and Liverpool remaining Tory free zones for some years now, the Liberal Democrats have had some success in providing an alternative to Labour.

Elsewhere however, the Lib Dems seem to have lost forward momentum. They will fight to retain Stockport Council but surely the wealthy suburbs of Bramhall must eventually return to the Tory fold.

The other council they control, Congleton in Cheshire, has witnessed a damaging row centred on the former leader of the council's Lib Dem group.

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